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Saturday Book Discussion: What makes writing "good"?



Warning: Rambly because I am writing on my laptop because Comcast sucks again and when I have to write and edit on my laptop I am less organized because Comcast sucks and have I mentioned that Comcast Cable sucks and is the worst provider of cable home service I have ever had in my life?


Aspiring authors, bitter that their Great and Meritorious Novel has yet to find a home at a publishing house while badly-written dreck stuff they don't like is making piles of money, devise all sorts of clever "gotcha" tricks to play on editors to "prove" that professional literary agents and publishers don't know good writing when they see it and it's all a corrupt shell game and nobody wants to publish anything but shitty vampire romances and that's why no one will Respect Mah Genius!!!!

You wouldn't recognize GENIUS if it bit you on the ass!



One game these trolls trot out every now and then is to submit something by a famous, well-known author, sometimes slightly reworked, and sometimes word for word, and then giggle madly and boast about it when they receive the rejection slip: "Hahahah, you moron, YOU JUST REJECTED FAULKNER!" "Oh, snap, you said that JAMES JOYCE's writing 'doesn't resonate'!"

Here's the latest round of this foolery.


Next I telephoned one of America’s leading literary magazines and chatted with the office manager. After gaining her confidence, I mentioned that I had heard it rumored that established writers, particularly famous ones, didn’t have to submit stories through normal channels. Either they or their agents could, via a telephone call to the managing editor, get a manuscript fast-tracked past the incompetent interns and the much feared slush pile (a claim I would later test for myself).


I am shocked -- SHOCKED! -- that established, well-known authors with a proven ability to sell get treated differently than random unpublished nobodies sitting in the slush pile! THE SYSTEM IS SO CORRUPT I TELL YOU!

(Incidentally, Mr. G.D. McFetridge is going for the Authors Behaving Badly Olympic Medal, leaving nasty, assholish rebuttals to people who disagree with him and even sending them anti-Semitic private messages. :o)

Making Light runs down this scheme pretty thoroughly, the upshot of which is, yes, it's entirely possible that (a) not every editor will recognize every famous literary novel, (b) some very famous works of fiction are not to every publisher's current tastes. But overlooked in a lot of these discussions is (c): often the editor does recognize the trick, and either because it amuses her or because she doesn't want to get in a back-and-forth exchange with someone who's likely to turn out to be a belligerent crazy person with a chip on his shoulder, she sends a curt rejection knowing that the "author" will then chortle about having "put one over" on her. Editors have seen this trick before. Really, they have. A lot. And there's not much to be gained by saying "I SEE WHAT U DID THAR."

I'll bet you would have rejected HARRY POTTER!



This is very similar to all the writers who talk about how many times some famous bestseller got rejected before being published. J.K. Rowling is probably the most oft-cited example nowadays: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was rejected by twelve publishing houses before Bloomsbury accepted it. Note, however, that Rowling did find a publisher within a year after she began submitting. Twelve rejections and a year spent submitting before finding a publisher is pretty typical - in fact, it's pretty good compared to the trials some authors have undergone before being published.

The fact that twelve editors turned it down does not mean those twelve editors had no taste or no ability to recognize a best-seller: perfectly publishable manuscripts get turned down all the time, for a variety of reasons, only some of which have to do with writing quality (though that accounts for 90% of slushpile rejections), and nobody has the ability to reliably spot a best-seller. This would be akin to having the ability to spot winning lottery numbers.

The fact is, however, that in general, publishable writing sells. Rejections and acceptances are not random whims of incompetent editors and interns who have no idea what "good writing" is.

Also, those famous lists of best-sellers that supposedly got rejected a bazillion times before the author got "lucky"? Take them with a grain of salt. I usually see a lot of inaccuracies in them. (For example, it's common to submit to multiple publishers simultaneously, and when one publisher says "Yes," all the others get counted as "rejections." Also, read Stephen King's On Writing -- Carrie was accepted by the first publisher he submitted it to. I don't know where this myth that it got rejected 30 times comes from.)

Dickens could never get published today!




Unpublishable

Unpublishable. Totally.


The next retort in the bitter rejected author's arsenal is the claim that stylistic tastes are totally subjective and ephemeral and that great authors of the past -- Dickens, Austen, Dostoevsky, Joyce, Faulkner -- could never be published today.

Well, probably not, if no one recognized their name and they submitted a manuscript written in 19th century prose. But this misses the point. If Dickens or Dostoevsky were alive today, they would be writing in 21st century prose style, but they'd still be Dickens and Dostoevsky.

It is definitely true that literary styles change. Third-person omniscient POV, for example, was used by almost everyone a hundred years ago, and is now less popular and considered somewhat old-fashioned (but it still gets used sometimes). Dickensian coincidences will get most manuscripts dinged in a hurry, because modern readers have seen that kind of plot device a lot and it's more likely to make people throw a book against a wall today. Long-winded Victor Hugo-style exposition and infodumps? Not many authors can get away with that today; readers lack the patience to read entire chapters about the Paris sewer system in the middle of a story about social upheaval and human tragedy.

But what made these writers great was not the specific time and place and conventions under which they wrote. Dickens was a great wordsmith; he put words together in a way few writers even today can match. If he were writing today, he'd be using 21st century vocabulary and grammatical conventions, but he'd still be wordsmithing, Dickens-stye. Jane Austen wrote witty social satire with keen observations about the most ordinary people (of her class), and wrapped up her stories with HEAs. If she wrote today, she wouldn't be writing about Regency-era gentry (or maybe she would, since Regencies are still pretty popular), but I think the Austen style and wit would still be present, and she'd still stand out from the crowd with her characters and her sharp tongue-in-cheek humor. Dostoevsky would still be magnificent and long-winded. And so on.

Writing quality is indefinable, but not unrecognizable




To fully understand poetry, we must first be fluent with its meter, rhyme and figures of speech, then ask two questions: 1) How artfully has the objective of the poem been rendered and 2) How important is that objective? Question 1 rates the poem's perfection; question 2 rates its importance. And once these questions have been answered, determining the poem's greatness becomes a relatively simple matter.

If the poem's score for perfection is plotted on the horizontal of a graph and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness.

A sonnet by Byron might score high on the vertical but only average on the horizontal. A Shakespearean sonnet, on the other hand, would score high both horizontally and vertically, yielding a massive total area, thereby revealing the poem to be truly great. As you proceed through the poetry in this book, practice this rating method. As your ability to evaluate poems in this matter grows, so will, so will your enjoyment and understanding of poetry.


Can you say that any book is objectively good or bad? Probably not without sounding like you are a crotchety old bunghole of a schoolteacher from Dead Poet's Society. But I maintain that by and large, people recognize good writing and bad writing, even if not everyone has had enough exposure to good writing to be good at judging it, or has not spent enough time thinking about it to describe why they think something is good or bad.

It is certainly true that what people like is entirely subjective. Some people will find certain books to be great works of literature that other people think are crap. There is no way to measure "good writing" in a truly objective manner. I personally think Dickens was a great (though not unflawed) writer. I think J.K. Rowling is a mediocre writer but a great storyteller. I think Victor Hugo was a great writer but I am glad modern editors don't usually let writers go on for fifty pages about sewers.

I guess I believe, deep down, that there is such a thing as "objectively" good and bad writing, but no one can really define or evaluate it. The best approximation we can reach is a general consensus by perceptive readers and the judgment of history, and those things are somewhat fickle too. But there are certainly turns of phrase - like "His manhood glistened wetly" or "It burst open yellowly" - that will cause any Gentle Reader with discretion to shudder at the lack of style, and there are plots and characters -- the trite, the cliched, the hamfisted, the implausible, the dull -- that render a book unworthy of high regard. You might still like it -- I still like James Bond novels -- but you have to recognize that the writing is bad, in the same way that you may not be able to define "good" and "bad" singing in a perfectly accurate objective way, but you can hear when someone is off-key.

Do you think writing quality has any objective characteristics, or is it purely personal tastes? Do you think publishers can recognize good writing, or are they all just greedy hacks looking for the next Twilight? Why, look, here's a handy-dandy poll to express your opinion! And a comments thread, too, if your opinion cannot be encompassed by a mere poll!

Poll #1812782 Writing quality

Do you think there is objectively good or bad writing?

No, there's only stuff I like and stuff I don't.
2(3.0%)
There might be really horrible or really great writing, but there is no way to objectively qualify it.
4(6.0%)
There are standards you can apply, but they're imperfect and it still mostly comes down to taste.
44(65.7%)
Yes, you can say something is "good" or "bad" according to specific criteria
13(19.4%)
Yes, I believe you can judge a book good or bad and state that those who disagree are mistaken.
4(6.0%)

Do you think publishers look for writing quality, or can spot it?

Hell no, they just make wild guesses about what they think will sell.
2(3.0%)
Other than filtering out the truly awful submissions, no.
5(7.5%)
They're no better than the average reader at spotting good writing.
10(14.9%)
They may have better judgment than most, but they're still wrong a lot.
35(52.2%)
I think most have a pretty good idea of what's good (and/or what will sell).
15(22.4%)




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